Historical overview

An historical overview of the desecration of Aboriginal burial places and repatriation of Ancestors back to Country.

Since the colonisation of Australia, non-Aboriginal people have studied the Ancestral Remains of Aboriginal people. The colonisation of Australia coincided with an increase in scientific research and large-scale plundering of many colonised parts of the globe. From 1790, historical accounts suggest that Ancestral Remains were sent to museums and universities across the world, particularly Europe, for this purpose. Authorities sometimes turned a blind eye to this behaviour or were instrumental in the plundering of Aboriginal burial grounds. For example, the diary of Reynell Johns highlights the activities of the author who was a public servant, working as a police magistrate and acting coroner. The diary sets out how, from 1850 to 1910, the author combined these roles with his grave-robbing activities in regional Victoria.

In 1902, Museum Victoria (MV) (then known as the National Museum of Victoria) encouraged the Victorian public to hand in Ancestral Remains for the purpose of scientific research. Individuals were asked to take Ancestral Remains to their local Police Station or directly to MV. MV authorities also conducted archaeological excavations on burial grounds and paid private landowners for Ancestral Remains to add to their collections. From the 1940s, grave robbing in Victoria reached its peak when federal and state governments funded academic institutions such as the University of Melbourne, the National Museum of Victoria and the Institute of Anatomy to acquire and study Ancestral Remains. The Murray Black and Berry collections at the University of Melbourne alone comprised over 1,600 Ancestral Remains and were just two of the many collections in Victoria. Ancestral Remains from the Murray Black collection are known to be between 80 to 14,000 years old.

In the late 1960s, traditional Aboriginal burial grounds like Kow/Ghow Swamp were studied by archaeologists. Excavations took place without the Traditional Owners’ approval and continued for years despite their requests for the excavations to stop. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, the Victoria Archaeological Survey (VAS), a former government-funded agency, conducted excavations of Aboriginal burial places to better understand the Aboriginal occupation of Victoria. The justification for such excavations was the advancement of science obtained from the study of Ancestral Remains. However, in some cases 30 years on, the material culture is yet to be studied and some would argue that those that were studied provided very little scientific gain. Concerns raised by the Aboriginal community were either ignored or dismissed.

In the early 1980s, Uncle Jim Berg began a campaign to have Ancestral Remains in government and academic institutions reburied on Country. Jim, then an inspector under the Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1972 (the Relics Act), was able to use his role as an inspector to advance this campaign. This was met with major resistance from the academic community, with political lobbying by organisations such as the Australian Archaeological Association. In 1984, an injunction was served on the Board of MV to stop Ancestral Remains from Kow/Ghow Swamp and Keilor from being included in a New York exhibition. A few months later, the University of Melbourne was issued with an injunction, which stipulated the return of the Murray Black collection to MV. The Relics Act made the possession or display of Ancestral Remains by institutions an offence. This work provided the foundation for Aboriginal communities being able to rebury their Ancestors.

On 22 November 1985, 38 Ancestors were reburied in Kings Domain, Melbourne. The site was chosen in the absence of being able to determine their origins. This monumental event paved the way for collaborative repatriation efforts between Traditional Owners, state government agencies and academic institutions in Victoria. Since then, thousands of Ancestral Remains have been repatriated to their intended resting places. However, the repatriation process is often slow, frustrating and difficult for Aboriginal communities for a variety of reasons.

The protection and management of traditional Aboriginal burial places is as important as the return of Ancestral Remains to Country. These places are at risk from a range of environmental factors and human activity, such as four-wheel driving, flooding, fire, animals and drought. Given the past desecration of Aboriginal burial grounds, many Traditional Owners are reluctant to share the location of these places with state government agencies. However, despite their misgivings, since the 1980s some Traditional Owners have worked with government agencies to protect and manage these highly significant burial places. Whilst some good outcomes have been achieved between Traditional Owners, AV and public land managers, there have been limited financial resources for the establishment of long-term strategies.

The trauma of colonisation, along with the desecration of traditional burial grounds, has had a profound impact on Aboriginal people for over 200 years. Whilst nothing can undo the wrongs of the past, Traditional Owners and Aboriginal communities across Victoria have worked with government agencies and other key stakeholders to ensure that Ancestral Remains are returned to Country in a dignified manner and burial grounds on Country are protected and managed appropriately.